Aug 6, 2013

Virgin Australia put to the Sabre by IT stuff up

Why the Sabre airline reservations system ought to go back to its nuclear proof 1990s bunker in Tulsa, Oklahoma

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

(AM update. Virgin flights are expected by the airline to return to the normal schedules in full by noon eastern Australian time).

It only lasted two hours at its source, but the lingering misery inflicted on Virgin Australia customers by a two hour global outage by the Sabre computer reservations system this afternoon is real, extensive and expensive and long lasting judging from social media messages and images.

The costs to the airline in cash terms will dent by an as yet unspecified amount its performance in this new financial year, following on the  very painful downgrade of the results to 30 June in an update to investors yesterday.

This is the problem with network wide failures. There will be a measurable impact to costs from idle aircraft, on which hours flying are a critical input into financial performance, not compensated for by foregone fuel burn and airport and navigation charges and easily outweighed by compensation or refunds to passengers.

And there will be the immeasurable damage to reputation and customer loyalty by missed meetings, family reunions and stuffed up holidays.  All despite the fact that this was not the fault of the airline, but the computer reservations and operations management functions entrusted to Sabre.

A twitpic of Virgin chaos in Brisbane last night by Mackie Marsellos

Qantas uses the competing Amadeus system. But Amadeus screws up too. Tonight is Virgin’s turn to be done over by a critical services provider.

Sabre is also used by hotel chains, car rental companies, and cruise lines and is the core system for the Travelocity on line travel company.

If you are one of today’s Sabre victims, here, or on a different airline abroad, ask yourself again, Am I really going to trust cloud computing? Only if you are stupid or fireproof or naively trusting are offered as possible answers.

One might wonder if Virgin Australia put a few jet loads of passengers onto the respective overnight trains to Sydney or Melbourne from each city.  At a guess they would have a combined 600 seats available for mid evening departures arriving in the other cities early in the morning, when Virgin counters will still it seems be struggling with the displaced hordes.  And whatever else might be said about those trains, including more expensive fares than often available on the airlines, all of the seating is at least big enough to sit in.

Back in 1990, after the inaugural second coming of American Airlines to Sydney, the writer flew on its first DC-10 service to Dallas Fort Worth via from, memory Honolulu, or maybe San Francisco.  The ‘treat’ of the following day was a day visit to the Sabre bunker at Tulsa, Oklahoma, as the original SABRE was then the earnings poster child of AMR Corporation, and far more lucrative as an activity than just flying passengers.

We were taken down into a operations centre with deep concrete and steel reinforced walls and state of the art air-conditioning, filtering and power and water backups that were atomic bomb proof.  By design.  SABRE was considered so vital to American Airlines that it would not only withstand a tactical Hiroshima sized A-bomb, but one of the smaller H-bombs then clustered on Minuteman type missiles with a potency of five or six times that of the bombs that burned the Japanese cities and ended the war with Japan.

The aviation press corp of those days was excessively polite. No-one according to memory asked our guides what use this was if its customers, and fleet, and airports, had all been destroyed on the surface by a nuclear holocaust.

But given the fury of airlines like Virgin Australia a nuclear proof bunker for modern day Sabre might be a necessity if the company can’t get its act together.

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7 thoughts on “Virgin Australia put to the Sabre by IT stuff up

  1. David Seaman

    Sabre? Part of computing history. Developed to run on IBM mainframes with a cut down operating system called ACP/TPF, they are very efficient at processing a lot of transactions very quickly. The mainframes are still made by IBM and run the Z/OS operating system, Banks and the government still run them. They are ultra reliable and secure, it is usually the human factor that stuffs them up. Odds on a simple human mistake led to this. There are lots of examples around, like the emergency stop button that looked like the ‘push here to exit’ switch. ‘Nuf said.

  2. ag0044

    [[Cough] Typo: “And *their* will be the…” [Cough]]

  3. Steven Haby


    In the 1970s and 1980s when airline strikes were relatively common the respective New South Wales Govt Railays and the Victorian Railways would provide extra capacity on their ‘named’ expresses and run ‘reliefs’ or ‘second divisions’ which occassionally required a change at Albury to standard/broad guage stock. Even if Countrylink and V/Line wanted to run extra trains now they couldn’t as there is little if any spare capacity with their respective fleets (thanks to just in time economic principles = spare carriages cost money). The XPTs run in fixed sets of between 6 and 8 cars and you could at best run some extra services to Albury on the V/Line network but you would either have to bustitute from Albury or cancel other XPT services across the state.

    Still a change of train at Albury is more palatable than sitting 12 hours in a coach.

    Regardless it still poses the question what sort of backup systems do the airlines and hotels chains have in these cases when the main system fails?

  4. Ben Sandilands

    Agree. My observation as a regular Melbourne and Canberra train user to get to Moss Vale or Bundanoon is that services are about 50% full on average, so had a quick action been taken some jet loads might have been shifted on to them. However on thinking it through (slaps forehead) not having their Sabre system up, it would have been very laborious for Virgin to individually ticket willing passengers onto Countrylink via phone to the rail call centre.

  5. Steven Haby

    In 2005 I was booked to come home from Canberra on a evening QF flight to Melbourne which was delayed by up 4 hours. It was a miserable winter’s evening as I sat in less than comfortable terminal and crunched the numbers about booking a taxi to Yass to connect with the Melbourne bound XPT. I finally arrived home about 2.00am in the morning (5 hours short if I had taken the XPT from Yass). In the 1960s the ‘Spirit of Progress’ used to provide a through carriage from Melbourne to Canberra via Goulburn which was shunted off in the wee small hours and attached to the morning Canberra ‘mixed’ departing from Goulburn arriving in plenty of time for MPs to commence at Parliament. The whole process was reveresed in the evening.

  6. Ken Borough

    Even if NSW and Vic Rail had the capacity to mount additional trains, would Virgin Australia have the resources, know-how and even will to move their inconvenienced punters via the suggested option? And how many of the latter would have accepted the option?

  7. Dain B

    Ben, you would be delighted to know that couple of years ago Virgin invested something close to half a million dollars in Sabre Reaccomodation Manager software just for events like this. It was supposed to book hotels, rebook flights and all this automatically. But I think someone forgot to mention that it actually needs ticketing system to work…

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